Editor’s Note: Meet Payton Polk, the 2021 recipient of the APH-Papano Scholarship for STEAM students. Payton, a biochemistry major at UCLA and shares her experiences navigating classes at UCLA as a person with a visual impairment. This blog also appears on the APH CareerConnect website.
APH: Hi Payton! Thank you for taking the time to share your story. Would you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
Payton Polk: First, thank you for this opportunity. I cannot begin to explain how thankful I am to be a recipient of the APH-Papano Scholarship.
A little bit about myself… Well, I grew up in Los Angeles where my mother raised my little brother and I. I attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where I major in biochemistry with a minor in African-American studies. I enjoy listening to music and I love art—from painting to theatre, poetry to sculpture work, spoken word to drawing. I like to see the beauty in life, so I’m interested in a variety of different things. Also, I enjoy reading. It’s become pretty tough considering my visual challenges, but I am working on audio comprehension by listening to audiobooks more often. And lastly, I’d like to say I am a “yolo” type of girl! I love to explore what life has to offer and take risks. I hope to go skydiving this year for my birthday.
APH: Wow! And can you tell us about your college track?
Payton Polk: Yes, as I mentioned I am majoring in STEM. It’s been quite a journey getting to where I am today. With losing my eyesight only seven years ago it’s been a real challenge navigating life as it is. Figuring out how to be partially blind is a difficult task for a girl who grew up with 20/20 vision. As far as my college journey, it’s a completely different ballgame compared to high school. As you can probably imagine, starting college was not the easiest hurdle to overcome; it was very hard getting the assistance to perform my best academically. While I was cooped up in the house for months, I took advantage of quarantine and used COVID to debrief from a very stressful first quarter and really figure out what Payton needed to succeed. I also took the time to discover what I’m truly passionate about. As I mentioned before, I love art and used this time to do things I love, like designing fashion and painting.
When I took time off from school during COVID I also attended the Orientation Center for the Blind (OCB), a residential transition program where I continued my studies in braille and worked on orientation and mobility (O&M), both crucial skills to develop as a blind person with the ultimate goal of independency.
I was awarded the scholarship this year; one of the really cool things about the scholarship is it incorporates both STEM and Art, which is great! When the time came to return to school, I realized I wanted to incorporate art into my studies. This said, I am proud to say that I am in the process of adding World Arts and Cultures as a major.
APH: Are you finding college accessible?
Payton Polk: Personally, my experience at UCLA has not been accessible, especially being a Black woman in the STEM field. I feel like just another number. Even when it comes to working with the Center for Accessible Education, the disability assistance department, here at UCLA—they gave me a very hard time my first year here. They want to help, but it almost seems as if they group all students with a disability in the same category. For example, I am partially blind. CAE might have something that can help someone who is sighted, a tool which will most likely not be of any use to me, and vice versa. On the other hand, the department might offer a device that works perfectly for someone who is fully blind, but that does not mean that it’ll work for me. It is difficult because I’m not totally blind nor am I completely sighted. This is why it is important to learn what works for you as a student with a disability. Secondly, it is crucial to educate people who have not experienced our “disability”, making them somewhat aware of what may or may not suit your needs. Most importantly, advocacy is crucial in not only academia, but especially when you get out into the real world. Learning to speak up for myself is one of the best skills I’ve acquired.
College is already pretty tough for the average student. To add on gradual sight loss—well, I’d say it hindered even my motivation to move forward. Not knowing where to turn or who to run to was a huge challenge. I shed a lot of blood and tears, figuratively and literally (considering what little knowledge I had of O&M; I fell a lot). It was important that I took some time off to get back into the groove of things. Now, I’m back and better! Today, I make it a point to speak up for those who come behind me with the same challenges as me. Since then, since advocating for myself, my professors have been helpful and understanding. In fact, now I work closely with my professors rather than going through CAE, taking the time to help them help me.
APH: How did you initially realize your interest in STEAM?
Payton Polk: Through my years in high school, I was hospitalized very often. In one way or another we could say that I got the chance to shadow my doctors and nurses; I was immersed in the field of medicine. This gave me the opportunity to ask questions and observe the different careers I’d been exposed to. That’s when my interest in medicine grew. Also, I had the best chemistry teacher ever, Ms. Tiffany Maisonet! According to her, I was good at science, and I thought “I can do this!” Ms. Maisonet encouraged me to pursue it and believed that I could become anything I wanted to, despite my sight loss!
APH: What is your career goal?
Payton Polk: That’s a great question, a question I’m trying to answer for myself. In regards to science, I initially wanted to become a doctor. I was considering sports medicine, OB/gynecology, and anesthesiology. The further I get on my college journey, I realize that everything doesn’t have to be figured out to a T. Life isn’t a straight line, you are going to face bumps along the way and from those we grow. I’m not the same person I was in high school. I’m not the same person I was two weeks ago. Each day I grow wiser, and I’m learning that it is okay to have more than one interest. Who says that I have to choose just one career to pursue? Not me. Why can’t I be a doctor and an artist? I can, anyone can. I know I have a purpose. I want to tell my story and be a voice for women, people of color, people (especially students) with disabilities. So, to answer your question, I don’t know! No matter what I become, whether that be Dr. Polk or Mrs. Polk, I will follow my heart and trust that God has a plan for me. One thing is for sure, whatever I do I will do it with confidence, authenticity and love.
APH: Do you have any advice for high school students interested in STEAM?
Payton Polk: Explore! Keep an open mind and try everything; join clubs and organizations, volunteer! Yes, it’s important to have an idea of what you may want to do, but if you don’t know, it’s not the end of the world. College is the time to learn who you are, what you enjoy, explore different skills; it’s the time to ask yourself, what am I good at? Here’s the thing, you don’t want to settle too quickly on only one career path. Another thing: shoot for the stars! The world is your oyster. Believe that you can do what you put your mind to! Lastly, it’s up to me, and people like me, to use our voices to speak up for ourselves and our community and to educate others about our sight. With this, we can all move forward together as a people.